Timur Bekmambetov and Tim Burton are quite a pedigree to have producing your first feature and the whacked-out illogical madness of the former and the gothic stylings of the latter are clearly evident in Shane Acker’s directing debut, the post-apocalyptic 9, but so too are the film’s roots – it was originally an 11-minute short, and the leap to feature length is not an entirely successful one.
Mankind has come a cropper once more when the machines that a totalitarian government invented in their infinite wisdom decide to turn upon them, expunging humanoid life from the planet – a steam-punk-esque World War I-resembling place where airships, stern-voiced public information announcements and HG Wells-inspired tripods are very much the order of the day. Life is not all done for, though. A collection of nine raggy doll-looking little critters created by a crazy-haired scientist awaken in the rubble-filled doom and gloom that has been left behind but they’re not alone, with demon-red eyed machine monstrosities roaming the wastelands, proving to be something of a hindrance to their raggy-mission to kickstart a new apocalypse-free future of freedom.
Bolstered to feature length, the story is the chink in 9’s armour. It’s underdeveloped and lacking direction or resolution, and the characters – the individually numbered and stitched together hopes for the future – suffer a similar fate. Varied to some extent in appearance and traits – the cowardly leader 1, the masked, ninja-tastic love interest 7 (Connelly), the friendly 5 (Reilly), the mute twins 3 and 4, who project old-school news reels from their eyes, and the heroic 9, who leads the revolution – they lack the depth and humanity of other animated creations, making it difficult to empathise with them and their plight. There are distractions from this, though. The film maintains a kinetic pace, careering through a number of high-octane chases and fights as 9 and co square up to their mechanical oppressors, and the world Acker envisages is terrifically realised. It is a kaleidoscopic invention that is part futuristic, part retro, and layered in neo-gothic tones and shades, the mechanoids themselves, often resembling something that Buzz and Woody’s evil toy-hating neighbour might have concocted. But, ultimately, they are just that – distractions, and short-lived ones at that.
Visually striking and rich in detail, Acker’s debut can’t find the story to match his impressive vision. His sophomore outing could well be one to watch.